Authors: David Sheff
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
Boston Â· New York
Copyright Â© 2008 by David Sheff
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,
New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Beautiful boy : a father's journey through
his son's addiction / David Sheff.
1.Â Drug abuseâTreatmentâCalifornia.
2.Â Methamphetamine abuseâTreatment
âCalifornia. 3. Children of divorced
parentsâCalifornia. I. Title.
Book design by Melissa Lotfy
Printed in the United States of America
MP 10 987654 321
This book is for the women and men who have dedicated their lives to understanding and combating addiction at rehabs, hospitals, research centers, sober-living and halfway houses, and organizations devoted to education about drug abuse, as well as the anonymousâthe brave ones who keep coming backâat countless twelve-step meetings every day and night throughout the worldâto them and their families: the people who understand my family's story because they have lived and are living it, the families of the addictedâtheir children, brothers and sisters, friends, partners, husbands and wives, and parents like me. "It's just that you can't help them and it's all so discouraging," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the truth is, you do help them, and you help one another. You helped me. Along with them, this book is dedicated to my wife, Karen Barbour, and my children, Nic, Jasper, and Daisy Sheff.
stay up lateÂ 17
his drug of choiceÂ 105
if onlyÂ 171
never any knowingÂ 235
When you cross the street,
Take my hand.
, "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)"
It hurts so bad that I cannot save him, protect him,
keep him out of harm's way, shield him from pain.
What good are fathers if not for these things?
"The Way We Are"
"Howdy Pop, God, I miss you guys so much. I can't wait to see you all. Only one more day!!! Woo-hoo."
Nic is emailing from college on the evening before he arrives home for summer vacation. Jasper and Daisy, our eight- and five-year-olds, are sitting at the kitchen table cutting, pasting, and coloring notes and welcome-home banners for his homecoming. They have not seen their big brother in six months.
In the morning, when it's time to leave for the airport, I go outside to round them up. Daisy, wet and muddy, is perched on a branch high up in a maple tree. Jasper stands below her. "You give me that back or else!" he warns.
"No," she responds. "It's
There is bold defiance in her eyes, but then, when he starts to climb up the tree, she throws down the Gandalf doll he's after.
"It's time to go get Nic," I say, and they dash past me into the house, chanting, "Nicky Nicky Nicky."
We drive the hour and a half to the airport. When we reach the terminal, Jasper yells, "There's Nic." He points.
Nic, an army-green duffel bag slung over his shoulder, leans against a
sign on the curb outside United baggage
claim. Lanky thin in a faded red T-shirt and his girlfriend's cardigan, sagging jeans that ride below his bony hips, and red Converse All-Stars, when he sees us, his face brightens and he waves.
The kids both want to sit next to him, and so, after throwing his bags into the way back, he climbs over Jasper and buckles in between them. In turn he clasps each of their heads between the palms of his hands and kisses their cheeks. "It's so good to see you," he says. "I missed you little boinkers. Like crazy." To us up front, he adds, "You, too, Pops and Mama."
As I drive away from the airport, Nic describes his flight. "It was the worst," he says. "I was stuck next to a lady who wouldn't stop talking. She had platinum hair with peaks like on lemon meringue pie. Cruella De Vil horn-rimmed eyeglasses and prune lips and thick pink face powder."
"Cruella De Vil?" Jasper asks. He is wide-eyed.
Nic nods. "Just like her. Her eyelashes were long and falseâpurple, and she wore this perfume: Eau de Stinky." He holds his nose. "Yech." The kids are rapt.
We drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. A river of thick fog pours below us and wraps around the Marin Headlands. Jasper asks, "Nic, are you coming to Step-Up?" referring to his and Daisy's upcoming graduation celebration. The kids are stepping up from second grade to third and kindergarten to first grade.
"Wouldn't miss it for all the tea in China," Nic responds.
Daisy asks, "Nic, do you remember that girl Daniela? She fell off the climbing structure and broke her toe."
"She has a cast," Jasper adds.
"A cast on her toe?" Nic asks. "It must be teeny."
Jasper gravely reports, "They'll cut it off with a hacksaw."
They all giggle.
After a while, Nic tells them, "I have something for you kiddos. In my suitcase."
"When we get home," he says.
They beg him to tell them what, but he shakes his head. "No way, JosÃ©. It's a surprise."
I can see the three of them in the rearview mirror. Jasper and Daisy have smooth olive complexions. Nic's was, too, but now it's gaunt and rice-papery. Their eyes are brown and clear, whereas his are dark globes. Their hair is dark brown, but Nic's, long and blond when he was a child, is faded like a field in late summer, with smashed-down sienna patches and sticking-up yellowed clumpsâa result of his unfortunate attempt to bleach it with Clorox.
"Nic, will you tell us a PJ story?" Jasper begs. For years Nic has entertained the kids with the Adventures of PJ Fumblebumble, a British detective of his invention.
"Later, mister, I promise."
We head north on the freeway, exiting and turning west, meandering through a series of small towns, a wooded state park, and then hilly pastureland. We stop in Point Reyes Station to retrieve the mail. It's impossible to be in town without running into a dozen friends, all of whom are pleased to see Nic, bombarding him with questions about school and his summer plans. Finally we drive off and follow the road along Papermill Creek to our left turn, where I head up the hill and pull into our driveway.
"We have a surprise, too, Nicky," says Daisy.
Jasper looks sternly at her. "Don't you tell him!"
"It's signs. We made them."
Lugging his bags, Nic follows the kids into the house. The dogs charge him, barking and howling. At the top of the stairs, Nic is greeted by the kids' banners and drawings, including a hedgehog, captioned, "I miss Nic, boo hoo," drawn by Jasper. Nic praises their artistry and then trudges into his bedroom to unpack. Since he left for college, his room, a Pompeian red chamber at the far end of the house, has become an adjunct playroom with a display of Jasper's Lego creations, including a maharaja's castle and motorized R2-D2. Preparing for his return, Karen cleared off Daisy's menagerie of stuffed animals and made up the bed with a comforter and fresh pillows.
When Nic emerges, his arms are loaded with gifts. For Daisy, there are Josefina and Kirsten, American Girl dolls, hand-me-downs from his girlfriend. They are prettily dressed in, respectively, an embroidered peasant blouse and serape and a green velvet jumper. Jasper gets a pair of cannon-sized Super Soakers.
"After dinner," Nic warns Jasper, "you will be so wet that you'll have to swim back into the house."
"You'll be so wet you'll need a boat."
"You'll be wetter than a wet noodle."
"You'll be so wet that you won't need a shower for a year."
Nic laughs. "That's fine with me," he says. "It'll save me a lot of time."
We eat and then the boys fill up the squirt guns and hasten outside into the windy evening, running in opposite directions. Karen and I watch from the living room. Stalking each other, the boys lurk among the Italian cypress and oaks, duck under garden furniture, and creep behind hedges. When they get a clean shot, they squirt each other with thin streams of water. Hidden behind some potted hydrangeas, Daisy watches from near the house. When the boys race past her, she twirls a spigot she's grasping with one hand and takes aim with a garden hose she's holding in the other. She drenches them.
I stop the boys just as they're about to catch her. "You don't deserve to be rescued," I tell her, "but it's bedtime."
Jasper and Daisy take baths and put on their pajamas and then ask Nic to read to them.
He sits on a miniature couch between their twin beds, his long legs stretched out on the floor. He reads from
by Roald Dahl. We hear his voiceâvoicesâfrom the next room: the boy narrator, all wonder and earnestness; wry and creaky Grandma; and the shrieking, haggy Grand High Witch.
"Children are foul and filthy!... Children are dirty and stinky!... Children are smelling of dogs' drrrroppings!... They are vurse than dogs' drrroppings! Dogs' drrroppings is smelling like violets and prrrimroses compared with children!"
Nic's performance is irresistible, and the children, as always, are riveted by him.
At midnight, the storm that has been building finally hits. There's a hard rain, and intermittent volleys of hailstones pelt down like
machine-gun fire on the copper roof tiles. We rarely have electrical storms, but tonight the sky lights up like popping flashbulbs.
Between thunderclaps, I hear the creaking of tree branches. I also hear Nic padding along the hallway, making tea in the kitchen, quietly strumming his guitar and playing BjÃ¶rk, Bollywood soundtracks, and Tom Waits, who sings his sensible advice: "Never drive a car when you're dead." I worry about Nic's insomnia but push away my suspicions, reminding myself how far he has come since the previous school year, when he dropped out of Berkeley. This time, he went east to college and completed his freshman year. Given what we have been through, this feels miraculous. By my count, he is coming up on his one hundred and fiftieth day without methamphetamine.
In the morning the storm has passed, and the sun shimmers on the wet maple leaves. I dress and join Karen and the little kids in the kitchen. Nic, wearing flannel pajama bottoms, a fraying wool sweater, and x-ray specs, shuffles in. He hovers over the kitchen counter, fussing with the espresso maker, filling it with water and coffee and setting it on a flame, and then sits down to a bowl of cereal with Jasper and Daisy.
"Daisy," he says. "Your hose attack was brilliant, but I'm going to get you for it. Watch your back."
She cranes her neck. "I can't see it."
Nic says, "I love you, you wacko."
Soon after Daisy and Jasper leave for school, a half-dozen women arrive to help Karen make a going-away gift for a beloved teacher. They bejewel a concrete birdbath with seashells, polished stones, and handmade (by students) tiles. As they work, they chat and sip tea.
I hide in my office.
The women are taking a lunch break in the open kitchen. One of the mothers has brought Chinese chicken salad. Nic, who had gone back to sleep, emerges from his bedroom, shaking of his grogginess and greeting the women. He politely answers their questionsâonce again, about college and his summer plansâand then excuses himself, saying that he's off to a job interview.
After he leaves, I hear the mothers talking about him. "What a lovely boy."
One comments on his good manners. "You're very lucky," she tells Karen. "Our teenage son sort of grunts. Otherwise he never gives us the time of day."
In a couple hours, Nic returns to a quiet houseâthe mosaicing mothers have gone home. He got the job. Tomorrow he goes in for training as a waiter at an Italian restaurant. Though he is aghast at the required uniform, including stiff black shoes and a burgundy vest, he was told that he will make piles of money in tips.
The following afternoon, after the training session, Nic practices on us, drawing his character from the waiter in one of his memorized videos,
Lady and the Tramp.
We are sitting down for dinner. With one hand aloft, balancing an imaginary tray, he enters, singing in a lilting Italian accent, "Oh, this is the night, it's a beautiful night, and we call it
After dinner, Nic asks if he can borrow the car to go to an AA meeting. After missed curfews and assorted other infractions, including banging up both of our cars (efficiently doing it in one accident, driving one into the other), by last summer he had lost driving privileges, but this request seems reasonableâAA meetings are an essential component of his continued recoveryâand so we agree. He heads out in the station wagon, still dented from the earlier mishap. Then he dutifully returns home after the meeting, telling us that he asked someone he met to be his sponsor while he's in town.
The next day he requests the car again, this time so he can meet the sponsor for lunch. Of course I let him. I am impressed by his assiduousness and his adherence to the rules we have set down. He lets us know where he's going and when he will be home. He arrives when he promises he will. Once again, he is gone for a brief couple hours.
The following late afternoon a fire burns in the living room fireplace. Sitting on the twin couches, Karen, Nic, and I read while nearby, on the faded rug, Jasper and Daisy play with Lego people. Looking up from a gnome, Daisy tells Nic about a "meany potato
head" boy who pushed her friend Alana. Nic says that he will come to school and make him a "mashed meany potatohead."